Alligators fouled by diesel spill get a scrubbing, teeth cleaned

An American coot flying in the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge in New Orleans
An American coot flies in the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge in New Orleans on Thursday, after being cleaned of diesel fuel from a broken pipeline in St. Bernard Parish.
(Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries )

Wildlife rehabilitators are decontaminating dozens of alligators, brushing their pointy teeth and scrubbing their scaly hides in the weeks after a pipeline rupture dumped 300,000 gallons of diesel fuel into a New Orleans-area wetland.

Diesel poured into the area outside the suburb of Chalmette, La., on Dec. 27 after a severely corroded pipeline broke, according to federal records.

Since then, 78 alligators have been rescued, and 33 of them had been cleaned and released by Friday into a national wildlife refuge about 10 miles from the spill site in St. Bernard Parish, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries said.


Cleaning a 6-foot-long alligator Thursday required eight people: four holders, two scrubbers, one person with a hose for hot-water rinses and one to change the wash water, said Laura Carver, who became coordinator of the department’s oil spill response team in February 2010, a few months before a massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico off Louisiana.

Carver said the impact of December’s diesel spill on wildlife was relatively high compared with that of most spills in Louisiana. Rehabilitating so many alligators at once “is a new one for us,” Carver said.

She said a hard piece of wood “almost like a really old-fashioned mop handle” is used to hold the alligator’s jaws open while its teeth are scrubbed. The teeth cleaning comes toward the end of a series of body washes using gradually smaller concentrations of Dawn dish detergent.

“They literally get their mouths washed out with soap. But it’s the only thing that works,” Carver said.

Birds and smaller reptiles also get their mouths swabbed out, often as they’re captured or when they’re brought in, she said. Alligators have to wait for their cleaning until all polluted food has made it through their digestive systems.

She said nearly all of the spill went into two artificial ponds, and only the smaller pond was completely covered with diesel.


The vast majority of the spilled fuel has been recovered, and contractors for operator Collins Pipeline Co. of Collins, Miss., are working on plans to deal with contaminated soil, Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality spokesman Gregory Langley said Friday.

Collins Pipeline, a subsidiary of New Jersey-Based PBF Energy, had known about corrosion on the pipe since an October 2020 inspection, according to federal records. However, it delayed repairs after a second inspection, concluding that the corrosion did not require immediate attention. At the time of the spill, the company was awaiting permits for the work and planned to start it later this month, the records show.

The Gulf Coast is in constant danger of spills from corroded oil and gas pipelines, said Dustin Renaud, spokesman for the nonprofit Healthy Gulf.

“It’s time we take a systematic approach to reviewing the vulnerability of our oil and gas infrastructure, and start the process of repairing and removing these rust buckets,” he said in an email.

The spilled fuel killed about 2,300 fish in two pits from which dirt was once excavated for construction. Most were minnows and bait fish, Carver said, along with some shad, gar, sunfish and small bass. Among more than 100 animals found dead were 39 snakes, 32 birds and nine frogs.

Although 23 live birds were found, only three survived the combination of diesel and cold weather, according to Carver. She said two have been released and one is still being treated.


Noise-making cannons have been set up in the area to keep birds and animals away, the federal records show.

Most of the alligators were brought in within two weeks of the spill, but seven were rescued this week, Carver said. The department euthanized three alligators that were more than 8 feet long; she said they had been in deep diesel fuel and were “in rough shape.”

Federal records show that Collins Pipeline notified authorities of the spill the night of Dec. 27, within an hour of going to the site and nearly nine hours after shutting down the pipeline because meters indicated a likely break. Langley had no comment about whether the department considers that time lapse a problem, noting that the investigation is continuing.

“Once the investigation is complete, the department’s enforcement division may be asked whether any environmental regulations were broken,” he wrote in an email Friday.

Langley said the Louisiana Oil Spill Coordinator’s Office is leading the state investigation. The office did not immediately return a call for comment Friday.

The alligators released in Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge included 11 babies smaller than 18 inches long. Though the babies, all found near one another, shared a shallow pool as they were treated, each of the adults has its own pool within a plywood enclosure.


“We’ve found that cyclone fencing really doesn’t work, because the larger gators really like to climb,” Carver said.

Brown reported from Billings, Mont.